On March 16th, descendants will mark the birthday of James Madison, America’s fourth president and the author of our constitution. Among them, an African American woman who has written a book about Madison’s Black relations. She is now the subject of a film called The Other Madisons.
The new documentary by Charlottesville filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley tells the story of children born to the Madisons and their slaves.
“It starts with James Madison, Sr. and a slave woman named Mandy who was first generation," he explains. "She came from west Africa, and they had a daughter called Corinne, and then James Madison, Jr. – who would later be the president of the United States – had a relationship with her of some sort with her, and they had a son, Jim.”
Jim and other slaves would be sold -- forced to walk from Virginia to Tennessee. There are, of course, no photographs from the time, but Montes-Bradley found a painting that suggests the hardship of a slave sold south.
“A group of African-Americans being walked from Staunton to Tennessee, and you see the overseer on a horse upfront, and then two rows of men, women and children cuffed and walking,” Montes-Bradley says.
Other resources for the film came from Bettye Kearse, a retired pediatrician descended from James Madison’s son Jim.
“Ever since I was about five years old actually my mother would tell me some family stories. I thought she was just trying to get me to behave," Kearse recalls. "She would say ‘Please! Always remember you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president,’ but as I got older, I began to think, ‘Well how did that happen?’”
As she came to understand the dynamics of Montpelier, her pride in being a descendant of James Madison faded as her pride in the strength, courage and resilience of her African ancestors grew.
“Enslaved people were remarkable human beings. They had a strong sense of their own humanity even when they were considered to be someone’s property – little more than a mule or a piece of furniture. Moreover they had a lot of talents and made a number of contributions to this country.”
Were it not for them, Kearse argues, James Madison wouldn’t have had time for his Princeton education or the energy to write a constitution for his new country. She is the keeper of her family’s oral history dating back to West Africa. Such people are known as griot or griottes.
“So the first one that we know of was Mandy -- our first African ancestor in America. She taught her daughter and other descendants to be fighting mad – that anger directed in a certain way can lead to strength.”
After her book was published, she heard from Montes-Bradley and was delighted to help make his film.
“Well first of all I got to be a movie star. Being a California girl, that was a life-long dream,” Kearse jokes.
But her real joy is in helping Americans to fully appreciate the contributions made by enslaved people.
“And for African-American ourselvess to embrace our slave ancestry, not to be ashamed of it, but to recognize that we inherited so much from them, and that we should nurture our own inner strengths and sense of humanity and sense of hope and talent.”
The documentary will be shown through the Jefferson School in Charlottesville on March 7th. For more information, go to